Revised May 1, 2002; August 31, 2007; August 27, 2008; April 21, 2013; and September 10, 2016.
Copyright 1998-2016 by John W. Allen.



TEONANÁCATL: FOOD OF THE GOD




R. Gordon Wasson and Rolf Singer in Oaxaca. A collection of Psilocybe caerulescens. Photo: Gaston Guzmán.



 
TEONANÁCATL: FOOD OF THE GOD

Teonanácatl is a Nahuatl Indian word which means "divine meat" and/or "Flesh of the Gods." Ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson preferred and later described the term as "wondrous mushrooms." The word teonanácatl was first mentioned by the Spanish historian Sahagún and was used to describe several species of entheogenic mushrooms which the Aztec priests and shamans used ritualistically during magico-religious ceremonies in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. However, today, in México, no Indians who use mushrooms ceremoniously ever use the epithet, "Teonanácatl" when describing the sacred mushrooms.

Psilocybin mushrooms were but one of many drug/herb plants used in healing and curing rituals. The sacred mushrooms of Mesoamerica are currently employed by several groups of indigenous peoples residing in remote mountain village hamlets along the upper slopes of the Sierra Mazateca in southern México. Several species of fungi belonging to the genera Psilocybe, Conocybe and possibly Panaeolus (Copelandia) are known to be used ceremoniously in these remote montane regions.

The Spanish chroniclers and naturalists, who first came to explore and record their new world discoveries, mentioned that native inhabitants used several plants which were of a narcotic and intoxicating nature. The Spanish clergy deplored such use which they considered and described as being pagan ritual practices, many of which used hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms ceremoniously. The Spanish harassed, often murderously, those who were caught carrying out these practices. Eventually, out of fear of persecution, the indigenous Indians of Mesoamerica began to hide their use of these plant substances from their Spanish conquerors, and would only communicate their knowledge and use of these substances to one another in secret. Thus, for over four centuries the use of the mushrooms remained hidden from modern civilization.

During this period, a negative view of regarding the ritual use of mushrooms prevailed among the Spanish conquerors. Noted ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson coined a term (mycophobia) which described this unfounded fear. European fear of mushrooms among the invading conquerors was one of the contributing factors applied in almost stamping out the use of many entheogenic plant substances among indigenous peoples of the New World. Today, only a handful of indigenous natives living in remote mountain villages still preserve the customs and rituals of their ancient ancestors the Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs and Mayans.

What once must have been a most splendid and powerful system of worship and magic among these primitive peoples has become aerated by western civilization. So complete was the neglect and ignorance in the western world of the importance of both the botanical and ritualistic ceremonial use of entheogenic plants and the religious fervor which coincided with their use, that in 1915, one of the worlds leading botanists (William Safford) claimed that teonanácatl of the Aztec Empire was not a mushroom but was actually the dried buttons of the hallucinogenic cactus known as peyote; furthermore Safford claimed that no mushrooms were ever used by the Aztecs.

In 1936, the renown Mexican engineer and ethnologist Roberto J. Weitlaner and a small group of his colleagues became the first western outsiders to actually obtain and observe the sacred mushrooms. Two years later, Weitlaner, his daughter Ermgard, her fiancé ethnologist Jean Bassett Johnson, and two others, became the first westerners since the Spanish arrived in the new world to actually witness a mushroom ceremony.

That same year, the late renown Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, the greatest explorer of the 20th century, embarked on a field expedition to Huautla de Jimenéz, México. During his stay and subsequent field research in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Dr. Schultes and his colleague Blas Pablo Reko were able to collect several specimens of mushrooms which they suspected were used secretly in sacred healing and curing ceremonies. Eventually some mushroom specimens were forwarded to Harvard University for botanical examination and one of the first early collections of some of Schultes and Reko's collections were first identified as Panaeolus campanulatus var. sphinctrinus. This identification led many mycologists to misidentify this species as a psilocybian mushroom. Years Later, mycologist, Rolf Singer of the University of Chicago, re-examined the herbarium collections of Schultes and Reko and re-identified some of the collected specimens as Psilocybe caerulescens, Stropharia cubensis (Psilocybe cubensis) and

In 1939 and 1941, Dr. Richard Evans Schultes published two papers describing his mushroom discoveries in Mexico. However, the identification of the collected species found by Schultes and his colleague Blas Pablo Reko was incomplete. Dr. Schultes then moved on to the Amazon, where for the next fourteen years, he studied rubber, orchids, arrow poisons, and plant life for Harvard University and the United States Government and never returned to México. As the war years intervened, the sacred mushrooms once again slipped into the obscure shadows of history.

As noted above, many years later in 1951, Dr. Rolf Singer of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, re-examined the mushroom collections of Schultes and Reko. Singer soon discovered that one of the species originally collected by Schultes and Reko was Psilocybe cubensis (Earle) Singer. Other mushrooms identified from these collections included: Psilocybe caerulescens Murrill, Psilocybe mexicana Heim and the non-active species, Panaeolus sphinctrinus _=Syn. Panaeolus papilionaceus), a species misidentified as hallucinogenic and mentioned as a possible mushroom used by the Aztec priests.

On June 29, 1955, ethnomycologists R. Gordon Wasson and his photographer, Alan Richardson, became the first westerners in modern times to actually participate and partake of the sacred mushrooms in an Indian ceremony held under the supervision of a curandera, María Sabina. News of this startling event soon became public knowledge in 1957 with the publication of a two volume set of books "Mushrooms, Russia, and History" and an article which appeared in Life magazine (May 13, 1957) titled "Mushrooms which cause strange visions." This article was presented as Part III of a "Great Adventures In Life" series (in this article, the Wasson's refer to María Sabina as Eva Mendez, in order to protect her identity from scalawags, as Wasson later described the hippies who constantly visited her home). A few weeks later, Wasson enticed his wife Valentina and their 19-year-old daughter Masha into consuming some of the sacred entheogenic mushrooms. This was the first time that the mushrooms were consumed outside of a native Indian ceremonial context. This was also the first turn on.

The Wasson's led several more expeditions throughout México during the next five years. They studied and recorded the various aspects of the ceremonial use of the mushrooms and the Indian tribes who used them. During these expeditions, the Wasson's enlisted the aid of several collaborators. The first was the eminent French mycologist Roger Heim (pronounced "em"). Dr. Heim visited México with the Wasson's on several occasions and collected numerous specimens of suspected entheogenic mushrooms. After returning to Paris, Dr. Heim began the long process of identifying the various species he had collected and then proceeded to name them. Next came the cultivation of several of the newly discovered species which Heim soon cultivated in his Paris laboratory.

Another of Wasson's collaborators was the noted Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, creator and father of LSD. Hofmann eventually synthesized two alkaloids from the Mexican mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana Heim), which Dr. Hofmann named psilocybine and psilocine. Dr. Hofmann named his generic product Indocybin. Later Dr. Hofmann presented a bottle of his mushroom pills to the curandera María Sabina, who, after eating the mushroom pills, claimed that there was no difference between the effects of the pills and the effects of the mushrooms.

R. Gordon Wasson reported that the sacred mushrooms and their use was heavily concentrated and widespread throughout the Mexican state of Oaxaca. There, such use is common among several groups of indigenous peoples. Among the most notable groups of Indians who employ the sacred mushrooms ceremoniously are the Mazatecs, Chinantecs, Chatinos, Zapotecs. Mixtecs and Mixes (Mijes). In each tribe, the preferred species is different and the particular rituals involved may vary somewhat according to the customs of the various tribes who use them. There are, according to Gastón Guzmán, more than 40 species of Psilocybe used in healing and curing ceremonies.

A famous once claimed that curandera "performing before strangers is a profanation, and the curandera who today, for a big fee, will perform the mushroom rite for any stranger is a prostitute and a faker." Yet mushroom ceremonies are still today performed for outsiders who come seeking god and enlightenment. However, a fee is often sought by the sabio or shaman for their services. In regards to the westerners seeking an audience with Marìa Sabina, she once said that before Wasson came, no one used the mushrooms to find or seek God.

While some of the Indians of Mesoamerica have used curanderas for their ceremonies for centuries, not all groups have curanderas as such. The Mazatec curanderas who perform such ceremonies usually consume twice as many mushrooms as their voyagers. The curandera decides who is to take the mushrooms and her energies always dominate the sessions. On the other hand, in Mije [Mixe] country there are no curanderas. Most Mijes know how to use the mushrooms by themselves. One may take them alone while another may take them with an observer present during the experience.

Among the many reasons for consulting the mushrooms are two predominant concerns; medical or divinatory. The mushrooms serve to find a diagnosis and cure for an otherwise intractable condition. They are also employed to find lost objects, animals or people and often to get advice on personal problems or some great worry. The use of the sacred mushrooms for the purpose of divination is accepted as a matter of fact. Demonstrations of the mushrooms capacity to bring about altered states of consciousness and higher visions have been convincingly made. In considering these ancient shamanic rituals, we cannot forget that this practice is all that remains among a primitive unlettered people of a practice that was once widespread throughout the powerful Aztec and Mayan Empires.

The final chapter in the colorful history of the re-discovery of the divine mushrooms was initiated in August of 1960. In a quiet villa near Cuernavaca, Mexico, Dr. Timothy Francis Leary, at that time a Harvard psychologist, first ate 7 magic mushrooms (Psilocybe caerulescens Heim). The mushrooms were given to Leary by Frank Baron, a fellow colleague (who allegedly obtained them from an old lady named "crazy Juana"). Leary, in writing of his initial experience stated that "I was whirled through an experience which could be described in many extravagant metaphors but which above all and without question was the deepest religious experience of my life."

What Leary experienced during his mushroom trip soon became public knowledge and eventually set in motion the golden age of psychedelia. During the next seven years, Leary's research in psychedelic consciousness triggered a series of events which have been amply described and debated in the popular press ever since. Leary was virtually responsible for creating a neo-religion, which took flight like the mythical phoenix and led to the vast public use of entheogenic drug/plants and herbs as both sacraments and catalysts for recreation and religion. Eventually millions of people (young and old alike) suddenly decided to "tune in, turn on, and drop out." The events which followed Leary's famous slogan eventually led up to the famed Summer of Love (Haight-Ashbury, 1967).

The demand for experiencing the magical and visual effects of entheogenic mushrooms rapidly spread from one region of the world to another. It created a desire in many young adults to travel to far distant and exotic lands, hoping to experience the euphoria and visuals of the mushrooms and to experience God which the mushrooms allegedly imbued upon the user.

While thousands of young adults and their peers (including those with a professional background) embarked on the long pilgrimage to México in search of the "magic mushrooms" (a term coined by a Life magazine editor), few knew that several varieties of these mushrooms grew within their own back yards.

The trail of entheogenic mushroom indulgence eventually spread from México to Harvard and then back into the Gulf States and down into Guatemala and South America.

The first popular entheogenic mushroom commonly used as a recreational drug was Psilocybe cubensis and/or Psilocybe subcubensis Guzman. Both species are macroscopically indistinguishable and can only be separated under the microscope. Both species have a cosmopolitan distribution. Psilocybe cubensis is also grown clandestinely and illicitly out of the sight of law enforcement officials in peoples basements, attics and closets. During the 1960s, when thousands of pilgrims journeyed into Mexico to experience the power of the mushrooms, both Psilocybe caerulescens and Psilocybe mexicana were the favorites of the long-haired intrepid explorers who took their consciousness to a new level of change and knowledge.

The second most commonly used entheogenic mushroom in America, the United Kingdom and Europe is the "Liberty cap" (Psilocybe semilanceata (Fr.:Sacr.) Kumm. "Liberty cap" mushrooms occur in pasture lands and lawns and are also common throughout Great Britain, Scandinavia, Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, South America and India. Similar species which macroscopically resemble the liberty cap and are found in similar habitats include Psilocybe strictipes and Psilocybe sierrae.




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